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The Monday Garden
Great Americans: Chokecherry

Issue No. 116 - June 13, 2004
by Sue Sweeney

  
Around my town, in May, you can’t miss the ornamental Japanese cherries. Beautiful but they’re mostly bred to be sterile; so, while they aren’t invasive, environmentally, they’re just a pretty face (except to trunk-boring insects). Fortunately, our bountiful native chokecherries also abound. Some are intentionally-planted cultivars but many are nature’s come-by-chance gifts.
 

Picture: Chokecherry fruit ripening on Bedford Street, in Stamford CT, June 2004

 
Since the birds spread the seeds, you could consider chokecherries (Prunus virginiana), growing in dense thickets along the roadsides and in the hedges, as part of the birds’ on-going habitat restoration project. It’s one native that can compete with many of the invasive plants that like the same sites.
If you want a small (15 to 25’), carefree tree with mid-summer fruit for the birds, and pretty spring flowers for you (said to smell strongly of almonds), it’s hard to beat a chokecherry. You also get nice, open shade and a good windbreak; the birds and squirrels get a cozy nesting habitat.
 

picture: Morgan Street, Stamford CT May 2004

 
The breaking buds and new leaves in spring are lovely, as is the bark. The young twigs are red, maturing to the shiny reddish-brown with the prominent horizontal striping that’s the hallmark of cherries.
 

picture: Young leaves and twigs, Hoyt Street Alley Stamford CT 2004

 
The older tree trunks are deeply furrowed, gracefully masterpieces. The pretty fall leaves are an extra bonus.
 

picture: a mature chokecherry fighting with an invasive Asian Bittersweet, Hoyt Street Stamford, CT April 2004

 
Chokecherries naturally live in mixed stands with other larger shrubs, often at the edge of forests or in moist places. As I child, I encountered them along the fence lines in upstate N.Y., and, of course, had to see for myself if the sour fruit would really choke you (answer: not quite).
 

picture: young chokecherry tree, Morgan Street alley, Stamford CT, June 2004

 
Take it from the U.S.A. Forest Service: “Chokecherry is widely regarded as an important wildlife food plant and provides habitat, watershed protection, and species diversity.” Likewise, the Kansas Forest Service: “Chokecherry is very popular for wildlife habitat. It provides food and cover for songbird nesting, bird loafing and roosting, and animal loafing and bedding. It is relished by a great number of wildlife species.” (We do have many birds and small mammals in these parts of the ‘burbs, but I seldom catch them loafing -- perhaps we need more chokecherries).

In the wild, large mammals, such as bears, moose, coyotes, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, elk, and deer also enjoy the tree’s bark, twigs, fruit and/or leaves and use its thick stands for cover. Chokecherry is poisonous to domestic cattle and sheep, but it is said that they don’t eat fatal quantities unless other forage is scarce.

Culture: If you want a chokecherry, it’s often just a matter of not pulling up what the birds bring you. For faster service, you can buy them at most nurseries, including the wonderful ‘Canada Red’ cultivar that hardy to Zone 3 and whose leaves turn deep purple as they mature. Chokecherries like full sun or a bit of shade. They like moister sites but must have well drained soil and prefer the mid-PH range (6.0 to 7.0). Give it some room to create its own little thicket from sucker-roots. It’s prefect for the edge of a “rain garden”, a privacy screen or a windbreak.

 

picture: planted cultivar, Morgan Street, Stamford CT May 2004

 
If there’s any fruit left for you, it’s too tart for humans to eat raw but it’s great for jelly, jam, syrup, and wine. Native Americans used the bark, fruit, leaves, and twigs for medical purposes, and added the fruit to pemmican.
  
From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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